Sermon on George Herbert

Sermon on George Herbert 2014

The past may be another country but its territory often overlaps with our own.  The case of George Herbert, the C17th Century poet who wrote our first hymn, Teach me my God and King, illustrates this well.

Those verses were only put to music last century by Vaughan Williams; before that they made up a poem, called the Elixir, which is a term taken from alchemy.

From the perspective of the present alchemy is often seen as a foolishly optimistic activity- the attempt to turn lead into gold- but in its day it was cutting edge science.  Behind it lay the same impulse that lies behind today’s efforts to hunt down the Higgs Boson.

To find the fundamental stuff that makes up the universe- what lies beneath the lead and the gold, and is the ultimate source of both.

Herbert was a close friend of Francis Bacon who is considered to be the deviser of modern scientific method and he even translated Bacon’s first treatise on the subject from its original Latin into English.

Shortly after the poem was written a civil conflict broke out in the east of Europe, in Bohemia- when that was still a country and not a life-style- and there was anxiety in the air where it would all lead.

And when he was writing it he was wrestling with the sort of questions which face all reflective people in every time and place. Is my career the right one? Is this the best use of my gifts? Is there something more to life than this?

He had just acquired the prestigious position of Orator at Cambridge University, which made him its official speech-maker, for all sorts of situations including when degrees were awarded and when King James 1st happened to pay a visit.

But he was troubled that his role was distorting his character. Making him a purveyor of flattering and deceptive words, and encouraging him to be someone content to bask in the status and prestige that came with it.

The verse which goes

A servant with this clause

 Makes drudgery divine;

Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,

 Makes that and the action fine

Was not, as it at first seems, just a declaration that all work can be undertaken well and with integrity, but also an attempt to convince himself that his current vocation was the one he should stick too.

But he could not quite be satisfied.

The second verse.

A man that looks on glass,

 On it may stay his eye;

 Or if it pleaseth, through it pass,

 and then the heaven espy.

Is about looking more closely and deeply into things. Rather than glancing in a mirror as you pass or simply pausing to admire your own reflection you can look within, and see the depths, the truth- heaven espy.

The last verse brings his theme of alchemy to the fore , with his allusion to the famous philosopher’s stone. And it is incredibly hopeful.

Not just for the individual working out what is fundamental in his life, but also for us when we ask why every life matters; from the baby being christened, to the person we see struggling for liberty in a far- away land, or the one who our society writes off because they have low pay, or no pay.

This is the famous stone

That turneth all to gold;

 For that which God doth touch and own

 Cannot for less be told.

God’s love, to use Herbert’s favoured word, is there for all people, it dignifies all people, and promises that whatever the outward appearance there are potential riches within.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon on George Herbert 2014

The past may be another country but its territory often overlaps with our own.  The case of George Herbert, the C17th Century poet who wrote our first hymn, Teach me my God and King, illustrates this well.

Those verses were only put to music last century by Vaughan Williams; before that they made up a poem, called the Elixir, which is a term taken from alchemy.

From the perspective of the present alchemy is often seen as a foolishly optimistic activity- the attempt to turn lead into gold- but in its day it was cutting edge science.  Behind it lay the same impulse that lies behind today’s efforts to hunt down the Higgs Boson.

To find the fundamental stuff that makes up the universe- what lies beneath the lead and the gold, and is the ultimate source of both.

Herbert was a close friend of Francis Bacon who is considered to be the deviser of modern scientific method and he even translated Bacon’s first treatise on the subject from its original Latin into English.

Shortly after the poem was written a civil conflict broke out in the east of Europe, in Bohemia- when that was still a country and not a life-style- and there was anxiety in the air where it would all lead.

And when he was writing it he was wrestling with the sort of questions which face all reflective people in every time and place. Is my career the right one? Is this the best use of my gifts? Is there something more to life than this?

He had just acquired the prestigious position of Orator at Cambridge University, which made him its official speech-maker, for all sorts of situations including when degrees were awarded and when King James 1st happened to pay a visit.

But he was troubled that his role was distorting his character. Making him a purveyor of flattering and deceptive words, and encouraging him to be someone content to bask in the status and prestige that came with it.

The verse which goes

A servant with this clause

 Makes drudgery divine;

Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,

 Makes that and the action fine

Was not, as it at first seems, just a declaration that all work can be undertaken well and with integrity, but also an attempt to convince himself that his current vocation was the one he should stick too.

But he could not quite be satisfied.

The second verse.

A man that looks on glass,

 On it may stay his eye;

 Or if it pleaseth, through it pass,

 and then the heaven espy.

Is about looking more closely and deeply into things. Rather than glancing in a mirror as you pass or simply pausing to admire your own reflection you can look within, and see the depths, the truth- heaven espy.

The last verse brings his theme of alchemy to the fore , with his allusion to the famous philosopher’s stone. And it is incredibly hopeful.

Not just for the individual working out what is fundamental in his life, but also for us when we ask why every life matters; from the baby being christened, to the person we see struggling for liberty in a far- away land, or the one who our society writes off because they have low pay, or no pay.

This is the famous stone

That turneth all to gold;

 For that which God doth touch and own

 Cannot for less be told.

God’s love, to use Herbert’s favoured word, is there for all people, it dignifies all people, and promises that whatever the outward appearance there are potential riches within.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>